As it is two years since we released our first album, everything is on hold, it feels like a good time to reflect on it- the themes of the songs and the stories of their creation.
The earliest songs from the album come from 2015 and prior. Soon after getting the masters back for our first two EPs, Different Seas and Mackerel, and energised by our record deal with indie label Folkstock, Simon and I were both writing and recording a lot of new demos. Some of them eventually found their way onto this album in some shape or form.
We laid down the initial guitar parts for the album versions in the summer of 2015 at a small studio and then slowly added other elements to them in what started feeling like quite a faltering and sporadic process. By the end of 2016- the year we embarked on our first Canada tour and released ‘Mackerel’ – we had something resembling a finished product. Except it just didn’t feel finished. Sometimes we’d listen through and just instinctively know it wasn’t really there.
At the start of 2017, we took the decision to leave what we’d recorded and start again. We started with Bilzerian. Using haphazardly programmed drum machines rather than click tracks, we found that our performances had a lot more spirit and feel to them. We now had an extra year or so of playing the songs live, too, meaning we were able to focus more on performing them, rather than just playing them correctly. During that time, ’Get On Your Skates’ from our second EP was playlisted by a popular YouTube channel and the resulting updraft from that spurred us on more. We wrote a lot of new songs in this time and the handful that made it onto the album are probably now my favourite tracks. Simon and I spent a lot of time jamming on the ideas and crafting the arrangements, and I think that collaborative spirit gives the album a unique energy that I’m proud of.
I think I’ll always wonder what could have happened with this record if a label or publisher had picked it up. It’s not an album that is suited to the hyperbole, evangelism and fast churning nature of online music promotion, nor to a listening format that operates primarily through playlists. But I believe that, over time, it will come to mean a large amount to a small number of people and, no matter how statistically driven the music industry is, that is preferable to me over the inverse.
The song outro for this came from an old voice note called ‘banjo freakout’, which was just the banjo bit at the end going round interminably. The rest of the song was composed on piano and, in the process of translating it onto guitar and banjo, changed hugely in character from a sort of elegant ballad to some weird grunge-bluegrass hybrid. The loud-quiet alternation between verse and chorus is very inspired by ‘No. 13 Baby’ by Pixies as is, I suppose, the ending! It was fun to record- especially the end sequence which we spent a lot of time working on, trying to balance the repetition of the banjo part against some sense of forward momentum. The song is about simultaneously feeling shut out of something but being fully aware of its artifice. At seven minutes long, it’s not a particularly commercially-minded way to start the album, but we were keen to foreground the slightly more angular aspects of what we do.
I wrote this song a long time before we recorded it, when I barely knew how to play guitar and was retuning it to find an easier way to play ‘Woodstock’ by John and Beverley Martyn. I was so energised and happy when I first came up with it- in subsequent recording attempts I found it difficult to capture the excitement of that first demo… until this version. Like all of these, there’s a bit of semi-autobiographical stuff woven into the lyrics which is too embarrassing to tell anyone about. I think I’d also been listening to a lot of ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’ as the phrase structures and time changes are oddly reminiscent of it.
This is a song about yearning for change- a ‘grass is greener’ idea. At the time I wrote it, I was playing at a lot of festivals on weekends, getting these little glimpses of a touring musician’s life, then back to work in the week. It was a strange, melancholy juxtaposition that we hopefully captured here. The title comes from a book by mountaineer and writer Stephen Venables that I saw in the bookcase when looking around for a name. It stuck as it somehow evokes the themes of the song and, weirdly, I’ve heard this phrase in so many contexts since then. I often try to create a sense of tonal ambiguity in my music and with this song, I tried to make it read in both D major and E minor simultaneously. The riff and the melody both came to me in a car journey home from a festival and I recorded it as soon as I got back.
(Over to Simon): 209 is the first time I succeeded in writing an entire song in one go, without logging sections of a song and trying to merge them together at a later date. The result is probably the most cohesive song I’ve written to date, though the subject of the song remains a point of slight embarrassment. The song is based loosely on personal experience of arranging a date, only to get cold feet about it. I wanted to describe someone in a beaten up “new driver” car who turns around mid journey and drives to the middle of nowhere instead of meeting their date. In the song I included a car called a Peugeot 209 (hence the title), which at the time I didn’t realise wasn’t a model of Peugeot – they made them all the way up to 208, after all. I kept the lyric however, and it now serves as a somewhat tenuous metaphor for what could’ve happened, but never did.
(Rob): A friend who I did a fair amount of recording work with was going through a slump where none of his artistic efforts seemed to be landing the way he thought they would. I wrote this song as a reflection on the precariousness of these endeavours and an exploration of the compromises we sometimes make with ourselves or others in our life journeys. The song started out as a ukulele-based folk song which I had no real intention of recording but, when restringing a guitar, I found that this song worked perfectly in whatever tuning I was in at the time. This sort of got the song back on its feet and it begun taking on the bossa nova influence and the heavier ending sequence. I’d been listening to a lot of Hejira and Turbulent Indigo by Joni Mitchell around the time I recorded my guitar part for this which probably explains the way it sounds. Simon’s slide guitar at the end is a combination of single and double speed guitar… sadly Viv Stanshall was not available to announce this.
This started out as a piano-based idea that I played along to the bossa nova rhythm preset on my keyboard. I then used an online drum machine to create the weird illusory rhythm that begins the song. I really enjoyed messing around with pitch sliding on the guitar, creating some microtonal inflections as well as that big drop in the solo. It’s one of the last songs that was written for this album. It’s about technology and how it forces so many of us into the dual role of victim and perpetrator- simultaneously addicted to and dependent on technology while also complicit in its rise and the terrible conditions in which it is manufactured. The narrator here is a sort of self-made, egotistical lifestyle guru who preaches liberation from ‘the system’ while also depending on it for promoting themselves. There’s lots of percussion in this track – kit drums, cajon, muted piano strings and some very offbeat handclaps.
(Simon): I came up with the basis of this song amidst the frustration associated with final year university exams. I hadn’t left the house much in weeks, I was staying up late, and every evening I’d hear the sounds of people passing through the street, simply enjoying themselves. I longed for this, and so ‘Dormant’ was initially a reflection of my own lifestyle at the time. This thought extends further however, to include the wider state of our society, how most are forced by circumstance into a life framed around the working world and its routines, yet long for something more meaningful.
(Rob): I wrote this song one rainy new year’s day, feeling fairly hungover and sorry for myself, and on the verge of a new chapter in my life. The initial spark came from a song called ‘Nonna’ by Pascal Babare- after a phase of writing some quite esoteric and dense stuff, this track reminded me of the value of just sitting with a guitar and trying to write something that got to the point. It went through so many different versions and arrangements over the course of about three years until I randomly heard ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ for the first time in a while and tried moving a lot of the harmonic and textural detail into the vocal accompaniment. It was the first track from the album that my friend Giles and I mixed together and it was released on New Year’s Day 2018.
This song is about seeing someone struggling deeply with depression. At the time of writing the song, I was visiting my parents who were working out in New Zealand. I’d arrived only a day before, was very jet-lagged and had caught a really bad cold on the flight. My parents went out, leaving me to my own devices for the evening so that I wouldn’t pass on the cold. I think the combination of solace, disorientation and general flu-like symptoms as I sat with a guitar in a spaced-out stupor imbued this song with a directness that doesn’t always come naturally to me. In a similar way to ‘A Slender Thread’, I tried to make this song scan in two different keys simultaneously.
I remember the morning I wrote this so well. I’d gone through a semi-ironic obsession with Burt Bacharach’s ‘My Little Red Book’ and this classic. The melodic idea was percolating in my head for a while and I realised I had to try and write it or be haunted by it forever. As I loaded up Facebook that morning, I saw a sponsored post by American celebrity poker player Dan Bilzerian, showing off his extreme wealth and opulent lifestyle. Reading comments from his followers who both idolised and derided him, I tried to write a love song from his perspective- one that saw love and relationships with a purely transactional mindset. The song now had a shape, but the true comedy came from the addition of the bass, the jollity of which seemed to represent the innocent kid underneath Bilzerian’s machismo- someone who just wanted to be loved, happy etc. My clarinet happened to be by my desk so in another ‘screw it’ moment, I hacked through the solo on that. Every time I listened back I would add more and more random bits of syncopation to the drums. It was a hilarious summer morning and I recall it fondly as a less hurried time where I used to joke around and write stuff that I had no particular intention of doing anything with. Ironic, then, that this somehow ended up on the album. It’s one of my favourite songs to play live because the abrupt ending only two minutes into the song (or sometimes just 90 seconds if we’re playing it faster) almost always gets a confused laugh from the audience.
I woke up early on a spring morning, suddenly freaking out about the future and how it was on its way, regardless of what I did or didn’t do. That day I scribbled down the words to this song. It’s about the fear of time passing and of getting older, as well as the imperfect, idealised way we remember the past. The arrangement initially sounded like ‘A New England’ by Billy Bragg until I pilfered a ukulele part from another song I’d written. The title comes from an episode of This American Life called ‘Fermi’s Paradox’, and was a question put to poet Matt Salyer by his young daughter which felt very evocative. I emailed him to request permission to use the title and he was super relaxed about it. It is ironic that a song about the trap of nostalgia has become quite nostalgic for me to listen to.